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An Introductory Note to Euripides' Bacchae

[This introductory note has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, British Columbia (now Vancouver Island University), for students in search of a brief general interpretative introduction to The Bacchae.  For comments and questions please contact Ian Johnston.  For a direct link to a new translation of the play, click on The Bacchae.

This text is in the public domain and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged--released November 2001.  This text was last revised on November 25, 2001]


Euripides' Bacchae, the last extant classical Greek tragedy, has for a long time been the focus of an intense interpretative argument, probably more so than any other Greek tragedy (especially in the wide range of very different interpretations the play).  In this necessarily brief introduction, I wish to sketch out some details of the source of this disagreement and review some of the more common interpretative possibilities.  In the course of this discussion, my own preferences will be clear enough, but I hope to do justice to some viewpoints with which I disagree.

Some Obvious Initial Points

To start with, let me review some of the more obvious and important facts of the play, things about which we are unlikely to disagree and which any interpretation is going to have to take into account.  After this quick and brief review of the salient points, I'll address some of the ways people have sought to interpret them.

First, the central dramatic action of the Bacchae--the play's most obvious and important feature--is an invasion of Greece by an Asian religion (something which may well have a historical basis from a time well before Euripides, but that is not our concern here).  The opening scenes of the play repeatedly stress the non-Greek qualities and origins of the followers of Dionysus, tell us that they have been involved in a sweep through Asia Minor, converting cities as they go, and indicate clearly that Thebes is the first entirely Greek city subject to this new force, the first stop in what is to be a continuing campaign of forceful conversion of Greek city-states.  Dionysus may have been born in Thebes (more about that later), but he and his followers identify themselves and their cause repeatedly as an invasion of Greece by Asian (non-Greek) ways--and what he brings with him is also seen by the Greeks (at least by Pentheus) as something non-Greek, something new and threatening  (the difference is, of course, emphatically brought out by the clothing and movements of the chorus in contrast to the clothing and movements of the citizens of Thebes).

It's also clear enough what this religion involves, a rapturous group experience featuring dancing, costumes, music, wine, and ecstatic release out in nature away from the city (in the wild, potentially dangerous nature of the mountains, not in the safer cultivated areas).  It is presented to us as a primarily (but not exclusively) female experience, one which takes women of all ages away from their homes and their  responsibilities in the polis and confers on them amazingly irrational powers, beyond the traditional controls exercised by the male rulers of the city, and brings them into harmony with wild nature (most obviously symbolized by the dancing in bare feet).  In the Bacchic celebrations the traditional lines of division between human beings and animals and between different groups of human beings (social and gender differences) break down and disappear or are transformed.  The play stresses the beauty, energy, creativity, and communal joy of this Bacchic ritual, while at the same time repeatedly informing us of the destructive potential latent in it.

The central conflict in the play focuses on the clash between this new religion and the traditional Greek way of life--both the customary political authority (embodied in Pentheus) and the long-standing religious and social attitudes (manifested most clearly by Tiresias and Cadmus, two figures of major symbolic importance in traditional Greek literature and myth).  These characters are faced with the issue of how they should respond to something very foreign to what they are used to.  They discuss the matter, argue amongst themselves, and make different decisions.  The play thus forces us to examine a range of options and to confront the question about how one should deal with Dionysus and what he represents in the light of traditional Greek ways of running the human community.

The most significant of these responses is that of Pentheus, the king.  On the surface, he is acting like a traditional tragic hero, accepting responsibility for protecting the city in the face of an obvious political crisis (all the women out of town raising havoc among the local villages, tearing cattle apart, and so on) and acting decisively  to restore order.  But we quickly sense that Pentheus, unlike, say, Oedipus or Achilles (or even Creon in Antigone, for that matter), has complex inner problems (especially concerning sexuality), so that his responses to the crisis (all that talk of prisons, soldiers, massacres, and so forth, along with his constant military escort, his fascination with Dionysus' appearance, especially the obsession with his hair) come across more as a psychological response to certain personal inadequacies or inner pressures (things he'd sooner not think about or is even unaware of in himself) than a genuine desire to do the right thing for the city or to assert a self-confident sense of his own greatness based upon a past record of achievement.  This aspect of the play makes it the most psychologically compelling of all the Greek tragedies, and dealing with this psychological dimension is obviously essential in any coherent evaluation of the play.

Finally (to conclude this short list of obvious features), the actions of this play are brutally destructive: the palace is destroyed, the major characters are all punished horribly by an omnipotent god who is supremely confident about his powers and (much of the time) superbly contemptuous of the human beings he is dealing with (the references to the enigmatic smile of Dionysus are important here).  In his distribution of punishments, Dionysus seems to refuse to consider that some of those he is punishing so dreadfully made some attempt to accept his worship and to persuade others to do the same.  At the end of the play Thebes (the oldest city in Greek mythology, the place where the Greek race originated, as the play reminds us) is in ruins, its ruling family (the origin of the people of Thebes) is finished, as Dionysus and his followers sweep off to the next Greek city (presumably to re-enact what we have just seen).  The final image we are left with is the scattered parts of Pentheus' body (the only unburied corpse in Greek tragedy, as Jan Kott reminds us), and the memory of the fact that, under the god's forceful control, his mother ripped him apart and (perhaps) ate some of him.  The only one left unshocked by what happens in Dionysus' version of a deserved "punishment" is Dionysus himself, who throughout the play seems to be enjoying himself immensely (the marked silence of the Chorus near the end suggests that even they may wondering just what their leader has done in the service of the religion they celebrate in his name, although the significant gap in the manuscript near the end may include something to meet this point).  Dionysus' statements justifying  his treatment of Cadmus, Pentheus, and Agave are brutally curt and impossible to accept as a satisfactory justification for what has happened.

What makes this brutality all the worse is that Dionysus' treatment of human beings robs them of their dignity.  Greek tragedy is, of course, no stranger to excessively harsh treatment of human beings by malevolent gods (Oedipus being the supreme example), but such treatment does not usually remove from the main characters a sense of their own heroic worth as they try to cope--in fact, confronting that heroic magnificence in the face of a hostile or unpredictable or unknown (but ultimately destructive) divine presence is the most important part of the imaginative wonder we experience in reading a great deal of Greek literature, from the Iliad onwards.

But in The Bacchae such heroic worth is hard to find, simply because so many major characters are either merely silly (like Tiresias and Cadmus) or have no control over what they are doing (like Pentheus or Agave)--lacking power over themselves, they are not free to make the decisions through which the values of heroic self-assertiveness manifest themselves.  In that sense, they are very different from earlier heroic figures, who may well live in a fatalistic universe ruled by mysterious and hostile irrational powers but who never abandon the essence of their individual greatness: the freedom to assert their value in the face of such a fate.  For such self-assertion (no matter how personally disastrous) to have value (that is, to manifest some human qualities worthy of our admiration and respect), we must see it as something freely willed, something undertaken deliberately in the face of other options.  Such freedom Pentheus does not have, because he is in the grip of inner compulsions which do not enable him to make independent choices.  If there is a necessary connection between his actions and his fate, that connection stems from his unconscious psychological weakness rather than from his conscious heroic assertiveness, pubic-spiritedness, or courage.  This, it strikes me, is a crucial point (to which I shall return later on).

Let us now turn to some of the ways interpreters have encouraged us to understand these (and other) matters.

The Bacchae as a Punishment for Impiety

One easy way to shape the events of the play is to see it as a relatively unproblematic morality story whose main trust is divine punishment against Pentheus and Thebes for their refusal to accept the godhead of Dionysus (this, of course, is Dionysus' view).  Taken at the most simplistic level, the brutality in the play might thus be seen as justification for evil behaviour or heresy: Pentheus and Agave act badly, they should have known better than to disrespect the divine (as the chorus repeatedly points out), and they earn their punishment, since people ought to respect and obey and worship the gods (or God).

Such a response is, of course, drastically oversimple, but it is also very reassuring, since it enables us to place any potential difficulties we might have in exploring some disturbing complexities (like the astonishingly brutal and irrational ending--so disproportionately savage) into a comfortably familiar moral rubric.  In fact, such easy moralizing is a common feature of many interpretations of Greek works (especially tragedies) offered by those who do not wish to face up to some unsettling possibilities (so Oedipus deservedly suffers because he commits sin or has too quick a temper, the destruction of Troy--as presented in the Iliad--is just, because Paris shouldn't have run off with Helen, and so on).  This tendency, it strikes me, though very common, is essentially a reflex response of, among others, modern liberal rationalists who don't want to face up to the full ironic complexity of tragic fatalism (but that's a subject for another lecture).

The notion that we are witnessing some acceptable form of divine justice here is surely stained once we consider the horrific and all-encompassing nature of that punishment--the destruction of an ancient centre of civilization, the degradation, self-abasement, and horrific death of the hero, the killing of a son by his mother, and extreme punishments handed out to all, no matter how they respond to the arrival of the god, combined with the pleasure the god takes in inflicting such destruction on human civilization and the inadequacy of his explanation.  All these bring out strongly the irrationality, even the insanity, of Dionysus' "justice."  So it becomes difficult, I think, to force the play into a comfortably rational shape, if by that we mean that it endorses some easy moral belief that evil is, more or less, punishment for sin.

A more sophisticated (and certainly more interesting) version of this approach to the play looks at Dionysus, not simply as a foreign god, but as the embodiment of certain aspects of human experience, as a symbol for the irrational, communal excitement, bonding, power, joy, intoxication, and excess which all too often get lost in the careful life of the city, governed by habit, rules, laws, and responsibilities.  This approach to the play stresses the fact that Thebes has lost touch with those irrational energizing unconscious powers of life and, in Agave's and Pentheus' refusal to acknowledge the divinity of Dionysus, created a situation where these powers (which cannot be forever denied) simply break out with disastrous consequences.  If that doesn't carry an explicit moral, at least it serves as a cautionary tale.

This view has a good deal to recommend it, particularly in the figure of Pentheus, who is clearly striving throughout much of the play to repress hidden irrational desires and to deal with a fascination with and horror of those desires.  He seeks to cope by encasing everything, including himself, inside metal (chains or armour) and by lashing out with male force (soldiers and commands), trying to impose a sense of external order on something which repels and attracts him, something which is obviously connected to his buried feelings about sexuality, an issue to which he keeps returning obsessively (whether in connection with Dionysus or the Bacchic women).  However else we see Pentheus, it is not difficult to observe in him a person who is incapable of uniting his conscious sense of who he is as a king (political leader) with his unconscious repressed awareness of himself as an emotional (and especially a sexual) being with hidden and unfulfilled desires (a point brought out emphatically by the male-female polarity in the conflict).

This aspect of the play is also strongly brought out by the obvious similarities between Pentheus and Dionysus--both young men from the same family.  It's not difficult to make the case that, in a sense, in those central confrontations between the two characters, Pentheus is having to deal with a part of himself, a part that he doesn't recognize as his (or doesn't want to).  The fact that Dionysus was born in Thebes underscores this point--he may have been long absent, but he is by birth as much a part of Thebes as Pentheus (both are grandsons of Cadmus).  So Pentheus' rejection of Dionysus is a rejection of him as a close family member (part of himself), as well as a rejection of his divinity.  And Dionysus' confident manipulation of Pentheus evokes a strong sense that he is very much at home in Pentheus' psyche and understands well just how ineffectual all those external controls Pentheus is relying on are going to be once he (Dionysus) starts playing to those repressed desires Pentheus harbours.

The play also links the music central to Dionysian ritual with the very earliest development of the Olympian gods (Zeus' birth), so there's a sense here that what Dionysus celebrates is a fixed and divinely ordained part of the scheme of things, no matter how much some people may have forgotten or never known that.

It's possible, on this view, to argue that Dionysus is initially seeking some synthesis in Thebes, some reinvigoration of the city by the introduction and acceptance of his rituals (hence to restore life to a more appropriate balance), with initially no particularly destructive intent, but that he changes his mind in the face of Pentheus' intransigence.  Dionysus, after all, volunteers to bring the women back into the city, without violence, an offer which suggests that some compromise may be possible.  Only after Pentheus typically rejects the offer (or ignores it), does Dionysus then tempt Pentheus out into the mountains to his death.  This moment when Dionysus makes his offer and Pentheus rejects it is a particularly interesting one, suggesting as it does that Pentheus may be unwilling to compromise because he wants to see something illegal, sexual, naughty--he doesn't want to accommodate himself to it (by having the women back in the city), but to enjoy it all the more because it offends him--the urge to enjoy the frisson of a voyeur overcomes any desire to understand and adjust--there would be no delight in seeing the women dance if that was legal, part of everyday life (given this point, just what he might be doing sitting under the trees in silence as he watches the Bacchic women invites some imaginative exploration).  So we might see the destruction of Pentheus as the self-immolation of a man too afraid of his inner self to address it maturely and too fascinated with it to repress it successfully.

However, there are some difficulties with this line of interpretation.  Apart from the fact that Dionysus gives very little indication of a genuine intent to harmonize his religion with Greek political life (given how well he understands Pentheus, that offer mentioned above may be just one more psychological deception, a preparation for what he has had in mind all along, the total humiliation and meaningless destruction of Pentheus),  the play offers us no sense that a harmonious synthesis with what Thebes has become and the new religion of Dionysus is possible.  If it offered us that, then it might be easier to see Pentheus' destruction as a particular instance of one badly fractured personality.  But instead the play holds up for ridicule those Thebans who do seek to worship Dionysus (Tiresias and Cadmus) and subjects the women who have gone up into the mountains to the most horrific punishments.  

In addition, the play stresses the uncivil and anti-civil actions required and encouraged by Dionysian rituals (especially the abandoning and kidnapping of children, the destruction of domestic animals, and so on--culminating in the most anti-civil action of all, the mother's destruction of her child, an act which, more than any other, violates the basic reason for the community's existence).  Given what this play shows us, it is difficult to believe that a reconciliation between Dionysian religion and civil life is possible.  And if that is not available, then what sort of cautionary tale are we being offered here?  What exactly are we, as spectators, supposed to take away from this in the way of closure?

The Bacchae as an Indictment of Dionysian Religion

Given this last point, it is not difficult to see why some interpreters have viewed this play as an indictment of religion because of its hostility to the survival of the community, on the ground that religion (as depicted by Dionysus and his followers) is the basis for the irrational destructiveness which threatens and ultimately overthrows the well-ordered city in an orgy of cruel excess.  On this view, the play is a cautionary tale about the dangers of religious superstitions.

This approach naturally makes a good deal of the way in which the play always links the benefits of Dionysian religion, its value as a beautiful, creative celebration, with destructiveness, with anti-political or extra-political activities, and, from time to time, with a sense of passive resignation:  human life is really not worth much,  but at least, thanks to Dionysus, we have wine, which enables us to forget our troubles, so we should worship the god who makes it possible for us to get drunk and not strive to be anything better than we are.  And in the Dionysian celebrations we can forget our individual cares, responsibilities, and laws and give free rein to our inhibitions--a sure way to undermine the things most essential to human well being and happiness, namely, the security of a well-governed city and the rational powers of the human mind to make things better (or at least stop them from getting worse).

If we focus exclusively upon these features of the play, then it's not difficult to sense how many might see it as a scathing attack on popular superstitions, particularly those which generate enthusiasm through mass hysteria and crowd violence in the face of calmer, more traditional controls (and self-control).  But there are difficulties in pushing this interpretative possibility too far.

The major obstacle here, of course, is the figure of Pentheus himself.  As the political ruler of Thebes, he embodies the nature and value of the civic authority threatened by Dionysian excess.  And whatever we might like to say about Pentheus, he is hardly someone in whom we might celebrate the enduring values of civilized and just political life (for reasons mentioned above in the previous section).  Quite the reverse--he seems as much a threat to what is valuable in civic life as Dionysus (although, of course, he is unaware of that).

In addition, the traditional values of Thebes are, in the figures of Tiresias and especially Cadmus, exposed as silly, grotesque, and self-serving.  They want to dance to the music but travel there in a chariot.  Cadmus seems  particularly keen that his family's status will be improved if people think his daughter has given birth to a god (whether it's true or not).  Their combined physical decrepitude (the blind leading the lame) is an eloquent physical symbol of the extent to which the long traditions they represent have become enfeebled (and, as I mentioned earlier, no two mythological characters in Greek literature carry more solemn weight, from the Odyssey onward, than these two, so treating them this way is a bit like making, say, George Washington an anxious, neurotic, and selfish coward in a retelling of Valley Forge).

One would think that, if the main point of the play is to expose the savagery of religious superstition as a danger to civic order or peaceful political life, then the political order would be presented as something more valuable, more worth preserving than it is here.  After all, whatever feelings of horror and sympathetic pathos we may feel at Pentheus' destruction, there is no sense that he carries an inherent dignity and redeeming value which is sacrificed with him (other than his presence as a confused, suffering, inadequate human being).  The same applies Tiresias and Cadmus and Agave.

The Bacchae as a Choice of Nightmares

A more persuasive and inclusive approach to the play, it strikes me, builds on the strengths of the previously mentioned alternatives, refusing to see it as endorsing one side of the dichotomy against the other (Pentheus and Thebes or Dionysus and the Bacchants) and instead exploring the play as a particularly despairing vision of the destructiveness inherent in the ambiguities of human existence, contradictions which simply cannot be reconciled into some harmonious creative whole.  Rather than being a cautionary tale, the play is a passionate vision of total despair.

This approach would stress that, indeed, the vision of political and traditional life of Thebes sees it as hopeless silly, insecure, and shallow, built on no confident sense of justice--something that has run out of a creative energizing faith in itself (hence the reflex reliance on power).  Those who embody ancient traditions (Cadmus and Tiresias) have become self-serving caricatures of what they used to be.  The traditional source of political leadership and justice (the king, Pentheus) is radically uncertain of his identity, wracked with inner complexities which control his actions, and thus without any confident self-assertiveness or sense of responsibility for the sake of the community.  The considerable power he exercises hence comes to be used primarily to protect himself against his own inner insecurities.  No wonder he is much more more concerned with confinement and slaughter than he is with justice--he's fighting against his own inner desires which (as mentioned above) attract and repel him.

At the same time, his polar opposite, Dionysus, for all the supreme self-confidence he displays, is a malevolent destroyer.  The gifts he brings are considerable, but they are not compatible with civilized human achievement (at least not as this play presents them)--they not merely challenge existing traditions; they also completely obliterate those who stand in their way.  And they do this, not in the name of some workable political or communal alternative, but for the sake of  mass ecstatic frenzy outside the traditional community and drunken oblivion within it.

If we remember that the central concern of the human community in Greek literature is justice--the best arrangement whereby human beings can live and prosper together as citizens of a political unit, then Pentheus and Dionysus both bring out the extent to which justice has disappeared.  Pentheus is concerned only with power in the shoring up of his own inadequate personality; Dionysus is concerned only with ecstatic release in a mass frenzy and the total destruction of those who do not immediately comply--all in order to convert civic life into an irrational manifestation of belief in what he represents.

Incidentally, in considering the importance of this idea of justice, we should not be too quick to accept the Chorus' frequent invocations of what they call justice as the "message" of the play or as the point of view the author is hoping we'll accept.  It's true the Chorus frequently sings of justice, but a close view of what they mean by the term stresses their irrational sense of the term: for them justice is a god-given right to oppress one's enemies or a willed refusal to do anything more than passively accept the given conditions of life.  These two options, I would suggest, remove from the term justice any central concern with the difficult struggle to establish fairness in the community and repetitively insist upon the extent to which the worship of Dionysus, as defined here, runs directly counter to the major concern of Greek political life.

The play offers no suggestion that a reconciliation between these two cousins is possible.  Human experience is radically split into two diametrically opposed and inherently incomplete possibilities.  When they come together, destruction of civilization results--a horror in which there is no room for human beings to manifest the slightest individual dignity and hence assert some human values in their suffering (in fact, their individuality is taken away from them before they die, so that they become objects of mockery or pathos).  So it doesn't matter which side one chooses to align oneself with, Dionysus or Pentheus, the end result is the same.  There is no moral lesson to be learned--that's simply the way the world works.

Jan Kott in a remarkably interesting essay drew a fruitful parallel between The Bacchae and Conrad's famous story Heart of Darkness, in which (to simplify a very complex fiction and Kott's remarks on it) human experience is presented to us as offering two irreconcilable possibilities--the European life on the surface (with its stress on political power, suppression of nature, urban bureaucratic rationality, and ignorance of the inner life) and African life lived from the heart (with its stress on passion, dancing, mass movement, and cannibalism, in the prehistoric wilderness of the jungle).  Conrad's tale explores (among other things) the mutual destruction which occurs when these two ways of life (or aspects of life) collide, and it offers us no hope for some harmonious reconciliation (either politically or psychologically).  The experience of these possibilities leaves Marlowe with the cryptic final comment that life is, in effect, a "choice of nightmares"--one can stay on the surface or move into the darkness, but either way life is inherently unfulfilled.  Someone who, like Kurtz, tries to experience both as fully as possible is left in self-destructive despair ("The horror! The horror!").

Kott's parallel, it strikes me, is very illuminating, because it does justice to the full power of Euripides' play--especially the savage vision of despair at the end, which we might like to mute by imposing on it some more comfortable moral "lesson," but which is much too powerful to be contained by such a confining and neat interpretative scheme.

Thinking about the parallels between these two stories, I am struck by how much more despairing Euripides' tale is than Conrad's.  For in Conrad's story, the two ways of life are widely separated geographically, and there's a sense that so long as that separation remains, the European civilization will continue, content on the surface and economically prosperous in its ignorant idealism (although Marlowe senses it is slowly dying).  And in that story we also have the figure of Marlowe as someone who, if he has not reconciled the white and the black, has adopted a meditative stance towards the paradoxes of his experience and finds some purpose in sailing back and forth between them and in telling his story.  But in Euripides' play there is no similar sense--the worlds of Dionysus and Pentheus are inevitably colliding, with more examples to follow, and we have no final consolation in a Marlowe-like figure.  Instead we have the scattered bits of Pentheus, all that remains of Thebes and its royal family.

A Note on the Historical Context

Those who like to anchor their interpretations on details of historical context (not a procedure I personally recommend for reasons there is not time to go into here, but a popular method of proceeding nonetheless) will find plenty of potentially useful supporting detail for the final suggestions given above.  Let me briefly mention a few.

The Bacchae is one of Euripides' very last works (unperformed in his life, with the manuscript discovered at his death), written when the aging writer had turned his back on Greece and moved to Macedon (around 408 BC) shortly before his death, perhaps bitter because he had never achieved the highest success as a tragedian in Athens or in his frustration at Athenian political life.  At this time the long drawn-out insanity of the Peloponnesian War was in its final stages, and its destructive effects on the highest Greek (especially Athenian) achievements were plain for all to see, as the possibilities for a just communal political life among the Greek city-states and within particular states had foundered on greed, self-interest, mass killings, Persian money, the corruption or abandonment of traditional ways, and political incompetence (in short, on the disappearance of justice).

The sense that in this war the Greeks were in the grip of some mass self-destructive insanity which weak traditional political structures and shallow personalities were inadequate to deal with was by no means confined to Euripides (if that is how we read his play)--there is strong corroboration in, among other texts, the apocalyptic ending of the Clouds and, of course, throughout Thucydides.

The Mythological Framework: Some Comments

The above interpretative suggestions are underscored by the remarkably rich treatment of a number of important Greek myths throughout the play.  These highlight the tensions between the eastern (barbarian) and Greek responses to life and to the divine and suggest by the end that the Greek way has been overcome and banished.  There may well be a sense that whatever it was which made Greece special (in contrast to the barbarians), the Greek "experiment," if  you will, has ended.  Without going into great detail, let me suggest some of the ways in which the mythic content of the play and the discussion of how one understands myth help to illuminate this play's despairing vision.

Central to The Bacchae is the family of Cadmus.  The play reminds us early on that Cadmus came from Asia (from Sidon) and created the Greek race by sowing the dragon's teeth which produced the first Greeks (the Cadmeians)--an event which is referred to more than once.  Cadmus also married Harmonia, an immortal, in a celebration which (like the similar union of Achilles' parents, Peleus and Thetis) symbolizes the possibility of a harmonious relationship between the human and the divine as the creative basis for the just community (of the sort we see dramatically symbolized at the end of Aeschylus' Oresteia).

The play forces us to examine the destruction of this earlier harmony between gods and men and hence of the political and communal ideal which it endorses.  Dionysus, an eastern god (or a god bringing with him a different relationship to the divine) is interested in submission, ecstatic revelry, and drink.  Those who do not at once celebrate this vision of divinity are subjected to harsh, instant, irrational punishment for disobedience.  And the penalty he inflicts here--the killing of a child by his mother and the banishment of the royal family into barbarian lands (a significant contrast to the Oresteia, where the killing of a mother by the son helps to establish human justice under divine auspices in the polis)--marks an end to whatever Greek Thebes was all about to begin with.  The barbarian East, where Cadmus originally came from, has triumphed.

There may even be a sense here in the Bacchae that the experiment was doomed from the start.  That, at any rate, is one construction one can put on the strong emphasis given in this play to an eastern vision of Zeus, a Zeus who, as E. R. Dodds points out (84), seems far more like Dionysus than the traditional Greek notion of Zeus (especially in all those details linking Zeus' birth to the irrationality of Dionysian revels and in Dionysus' repeated insistence that he is the son of Zeus).  The emphasis on the overwhelming destructiveness of the gods (from Zeus' lighting bolt which kills Semele to the tearing apart of Actaeon, as well as Dionysus' conduct in the play) tends constantly to undercut any sense that some sort of harmonious cooperation between humans and the divine, some arrangement which gives human beings a chance to manifest their worth in a traditionally Greek way, is possible.

But if this play is exploring such a despairing vision, it offers us the sense that part of the problem is the loss of human participation in the original arrangement.  In the Bacchae, we witness the deterioration of the human capacity to accept the mystery of divine mythology as a vitalizing and creative political presence--and the enduring value of the link between the human and the divine celebrated in the marriage of Cadmus and Harmonia depends upon that more than anything else.

Here, however, Cadmus' children refuse to enter the world of religious myth.  Semele's sisters see her story as a convenient lie to excuse her sexual promiscuity with some man, and Pentheus is far too concerned with secular power and his own inadequacies to entertain a truly religious thought.  Cadmus sees religion primarily as a way of making his family more important (and thus protecting himself).  None of them displays any true reverence for the mysteries of life passed down to them (in this respect, one might note the significant differences between them and, say, Oedipus in Oedipus the King).

The most interesting figure in connection with this attitude to mythology is Tiresias, traditionally a mediator between divine wisdom and limited human understanding.  Here he seems more concerned to rationalize Dionysus away, rather than to accept him as a particular, immediate, and mysterious religious experience.  Hence, he can subject the myth of Dionysus' birth from the thigh of Zeus to rational analysis (Dodds has some excellent comments on this point on 91).  There may well be some satiric intent in this presentation of Tiresias (maybe), but, beyond the most immediate satire, there may also be a sense that this most venerable of religious sensibilities has degenerated (or, if that is too strong, changed) into a new form of thinking which makes religious belief at least difficult and at most ridiculous.

Depending on the construction one puts upon the attitude to mythology in the Bacchae, one might offer a variety of interpretative possibilities concerning Euripides' final word on Greek traditions, from lament to satire.  My own view is that the play is not taking sides, but rather, as I have mentioned, exploring a passionate sense of despair at what has happened and what the future holds.  With one eye on the philosophical revolution which, in the figures of Socrates and Plato, is going to attempt to redefine the basis of the good life, we can understand why Nietzsche (in The Birth of Tragedy) sees Euripides and Socrates as soul mates, but we do not have to go that far.  The play evokes a terrible sense of something coming to an end (the exile of Cadmus and Harmonia and the end of Greek Thebes)--and it invites speculation about what now happens to the human community in the face of the triumph of Dionysian irrationality and destruction.

Works Cited

E. R. Dodds, editor.  Euripides Bacchae.  Second Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977.

Jan Kott. The Eating of the Gods: An Interpretation of Greek Tragedy.  NY: Random House, 1974.


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